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Seeking Solutions to Antibiotic-resistant Bacterial Infections

Recent doctoral graduate Sylvia Omulo is working with a team of WSU scientists to stop the spread of untreatable infections.

sylvia omulo in laboratoryBy Cheryl Reed

Recent news reports have focused public attention on the alarming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals. But the threat is truly global. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a focus of research at the Paul. G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University, and was the topic of discussion at the WSU Innovators lecture series in Seattle on April 18, 2017.

“The Innovators event highlighted how WSU’s research in Africa impacts health in the U.S.,” said Omulo, a recent doctoral graduate of WSU.

Antimicrobial resistance is favored whenever antibiotics are used, but unregulated use and unsanitary living conditions contribute disproportionately to this problem. Curbing the resistance challenge requires a global team of experts. Scientists at WSU are working with global health agencies in East Africa to understand the emergence and spread of AMR and to develop solutions.

Omulo was one of the panelists at the Innovator lecture series. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical science and technology from Egerton University in Kenya, and her master’s degree at the University of Leeds in the UK. While working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KEMRI/CDC) program, she met WSU’s Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health scientists Guy Palmer and Terry McElwain, who were in Kenya to roll out a population-based animal syndromic surveillance project.

In August of 2011, Omulo visited Washington State University for the first time while attending a quality management systems training by USDA and WSU. At that time, Omulo was transitioning to a new position within the KEMRI/CDC program after earning her master’s degree.

“While on a tour of WSU’s Pullman campus, Terry McElwain asked me if I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. here” says Omulo. “So when I finished my obligation to the KEMRI/CDC program in August 2013, I came to WSU to begin my doctoral work in Doug Call’s laboratory.”

Omulo has been researching AMR for her doctoral dissertation, focusing on risk factors and control policies for AMR-driven infectious diseases within crowded urban communities in East Africa.

Her dissertation research investigated the contributions of sanitation, environment, and antibiotic use in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. She found that when the environment is saturated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is hard to understand the contributions of various factors, including the role of antibiotics.

After her graduation ceremony in May, Omulo will continue her AMR research in Kenya as a WSU post-doctoral fellow. Her research as a post doc will advance the work of the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health and help solve the critical problems facing the world, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases. She feels well prepared now to understand community priorities and to develop and design interventions to improve health in her home country.

In 2016, Omulo received the Epidemiology and Population Health Summer Institute at Columbia scholarship, and the Association for Faculty Women’s Karen DePauw Leadership Award.

She is glad she chose Washington State University for her Ph.D. program.

“As a PhD student at WSU, I received excellent faculty mentorship. My advisor and doctoral committee continuously held meetings with me about my research proposal and prepared me well for my preliminary exams. I did not realize what impact that preparation had until I got back to Kenya to conduct my research. My previous colleagues told me that something about me had changed—I had become a confident leader.”

Omulo is not only a scientist, but a talented artist as well. She won national awards in Kenya for her art, some of which paid her undergraduate tuition.

“I draw, paint, and hand-craft greetings cards,” she says. “If I hadn’t pursued science, I would have studied the arts.”

“My time at WSU has been a rewarding experience. The academic environment here provides conditions that are highly conducive to learning. I can credit some of my successes as a student to the Pullman campus location—fewer external distractions and more student-oriented activities.”

To become part of WSU’s research, visit gradschool.wsu.edu to find a graduate program that fits your talents and interests.

The Calculus of Grace

By Brian Charles Clark

For Valerie Cheathon, it all adds up. She plans to earn a master’s degree in applied math so she can make movies. Sitting in the Compton Union Building on the Pullman campus of Washington State University one morning, she clearly sees the world as a weave of numbers—and stories.

“I like applied math. You can help people with math. You can solve problems. Like, how much air conditioning is needed,” gesturing at the expanse of the CUB, “that’s a math problem. The doors are nodes and the connecting hallways get different values depending on width, length, and so forth.”

The other thing Cheathon likes about math is that it is “not up for debate.” There are no alternative facts: “You either get the answer, or you don’t. I love writing too, but I rarely show it to other people because it’s your baby. And when they say, you should put a pink dress on that baby and not a blue one—well, it’s mine! But with math, you don’t really have that. You can discuss the ways you got to the answer but, pretty much, there is a single answer we are all gunning for.”

The Kids are Alright

But life is not like math. Answers are often hard to come by, and logic is nonexistent. Her kids, though, “pretty much saved my life,” she says. Like a lot of us, Cheathon had a rough few years in her late teens and early twenties.

“After my parents divorced,” she says, “I kind of spiraled through a lot of bad choices.” But after first Benjamin, and then her daughter, Kennedy, were born, she decided, “I had to have more money per hour!” So she went back to college.

She majored in applied math at Arizona State University. “The ways I made money when I was younger was braiding hair and tutoring math,” she says, so she pushed ahead with her studies.

Keep the Faith

If her kids saved her life and are her inspiration to constantly pressure herself to do more, to do better, then her foundation is her faith. The daughter of a Baptist preacher, Cheathon considers mathematics to be the intersection of the divine and the mundane. “A person might look at theoretical math and say, ‘Wow, humans are so awesome, we don’t need God!’ But I look at it and think, ‘Wow, God is so awesome!’

“And if you’re right,” she adds, “you can help a lot of people.” Basic life skills, like figuring out a budget for a family or a business, determining if a loan is fair, or the odds on winning a lottery, are all skills that applied mathematicians teach.

Issues of social justice can be likewise approached through math. How are limited resources, like food, water, and housing, most fairly distributed? Empowered with math skills, environmentalists have shown that the neighborhoods of people of color are often at greater risk for toxins and trash than more affluent areas. The concepts of gerrymandering, gentrification, racial profiling, and food deserts—in which low-income neighborhoods often have no access to supermarkets or farmers markets with fresh produce and other nutritious foods—can all be identified and corrected using math.

An appreciation of how other cultures have used applied math can give students a new perspective on the value of diversity. Fractal geometry, for instance, is an ancient and important part of many African architecture and aesthetic systems, while origami is a venerable and entertaining system for visualizing geometrical problems in a hands-on way. Teaching math is thus a kind of activism.

Power to the Teachers

Cheathon is a teaching assistant for calculus classes at Washington State University. “One thing about growing up in church is you learn to deal with a lot of different personalities. And as the preacher’s kid, when all those personalities are at you about this thing or another, you have to handle it like customer service. Everybody wants something, they want your attention, and they want to feel special. Even here, when we’re teaching calculus lab with 30 or so people, you want to reach them. You want to inspire and motivate them.”

But it’s not always easy, she says: “You’re trying to be more exciting than their phones! And then there’re the hecklers. You have to prepare and be able to answer ‘why?’ about three layers deep. Especially as a minority female, you have to be prepared.”

And it turns out that teaching is not unlike storytelling. “You’re part psychologist, counselor, and performer. And each performance is individualized! It’s a dance and they’ll call you out if it’s not a good dance.”

A big fan of documentaries, especially shorter films such as the ones featured on Independent Lens, Cheathon says, “I’ve always liked to write, I love storytelling.”

Hearing Voices

She’s also concerned about whose voice gets heard. As with so many professions, white males dominate filmmaking. She says she has been jotting down ideas for a film about being of mixed race, based not only on her own experience but on those of friends who have lighter skin tones and this “get it from both sides. The stuff I’m interested in doing would be pretty gritty. It’d be about people’s struggles.”

Writing also helps ground her and keep her own struggles in perspective. “It helps de-stress me,” Cheathon says of keeping a journal. And raising two kids as a single mother is definitely a struggle—especially while navigating the world of higher education.

Although she was raised to be self-reliant, she realized that always going it alone was not sustainable. She had a professor at ASU, Dr. Erika Comacho, who was also a single parent in graduate school.

“She told me, ‘Don’t sit there quiet if you need help; say you need help.’”

Burst Your Bubble

Cheathon pauses to reflect, then adds, “It’s easy to be in a white bubble, a black bubble, a Hispanic bubble—but that’s not the way I want to be and it’s not the way I want my kids to be. You have to take people on a case-by-case basis,” Cheathon says.

“If you’re a person of color, you cannot convince yourself that a white person cannot help you. You cannot give up on other people. You’ve got to establish relationships, especially with other single moms.”

Inspired by her children, her faith, and her love of people and their stories, Cheathon is always striving to be more. That’s something she wants to share with other people—through teaching and filmmaking.

“If I can be entertaining, that’d be great,” she says. But the thing she really wants to share is more intangible. It’s that feeling of “I got this!” she says, laughing, delighted at a memory that is like “a splash of cold water on a hot Phoenix day.” It was the discovery that, with a little help from friends, mentors, and her children, “I understand this! And I can explain it to others.”

Artificial Intelligence and Society

Back in the 1980s, Antonie Bodley was a youngster with a new friend. Teddy Ruxpin was a robotic, storytelling teddy bear that never grew cranky or impatient. Its eyes blinked. Its mouth moved. And the bestselling toy of 1985 engaged kids with stories, songs, and comforting pronouncements about friendship and camaraderie. Bodley, now 34 and a WSU IIDP  graduate, knows that’s where her fascination with robotics and artificial intelligence began to take root. Read More

The Doctoral Program of Endless Possibility

2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley finds ways to improve mental health treatment

By Amir Gilmore

Graduate School Evening of Excellence event at the Banyan’s event center on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016 in Pullman.

Imagine the endless research possibilities and complex problems you could solve in a flexible graduate program tailored to your individual interests. Spokane native and 2017 Ph.D. graduate Mason Burley realized the possibilities in WSU’s individual interdisciplinary doctoral degree program (IIDP), where he researched mental health treatment through the lens of epidemiology, biostatistics, health administration and policy, and public health.

“The IIDP allows students to draw upon the strengths and resources from three different departments,” says Mason. “We can ultimately address critical problems that may not be unique to a single discipline.”

 

Mason graduated May 5 at the Spokane campus commencement ceremony.

When considering a Ph.D program, Mason talked with Kenn Daratha associate professor in the College of Nursing and a 2004 WSU IIDP graduate, and decided the IIDP program would be a good fit for his research interests.

“The program is designed to be flexible,” says Mason. “There is a lot of balancing between engaging with your committee members and communicating your research goals— but that is the nature of interdisciplinary research.”

Mason’s interest was mental health treatment. He recognized that only about half of the individuals with mental health conditions were receiving psychiatric treatment, so he focused his dissertation research on improving acute in-patient psychiatric treatment by developing a risk profile for individuals who face recurrent psychiatric hospitalizations over a short period.

“I am interested in access and availability and engagement in mental health treatment,” says Mason.

In addition to the flexibility of the program, students also benefit from strong academic support from faculty that span the three disciplines. Mason’s mentor and committee chair, Kenn Daratha, advised him on scholarly research and authored several publications with him. John Roll, vice dean for research in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, was a staunch supporter of Mason’s research, and Mel Haberman, professor in the College of Nursing, helped with grant development and research writing. Jae Kennedy, professor and Chair of Health Policy and Administration, gave Mason the opportunity to teach statistics to his graduate students. Graduate School Associate Dean Patricia Sturko and Associate Dean Lisa Gloss were essential in guiding Mason through interdisciplinary research and providing a space to cultivate ideas. With the support of his committee, Mason was the recipient of the 2015-16 Russ and Anne Fuller Fellowship.

“The IIDP gave me the opportunity and confidence to pursue research without any preconceived constraints,” says Mason. “During my time in the program, I really valued the expertise of my committee members and looked to their suggestions about how I could apply discipline-specific knowledge to address overarching issues affecting behavioral health policy and treatment access.”

Last December, Mason began working for Premier, Inc., a hospital-owned quality improvement organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina. He works specifically for a division of the company called Premier Research Institute, which interfaces with foundations, university researchers and federal agencies to complete health outcomes research.

For more information about IIDP, and what students are researching, visit the IIDP website.

 

2016 Annual Report Available

The Graduate School 2016 Annual Report is now available. To read enrollment, degrees awarded, graduate school diversity, scholarships and assistantships as well as Graduate School initiatives and student success, download the PDF HERE.

2017 Evening of Excellence

The Graduate School hosted the third annual Evening of Excellence on April 13, 2017 at Banyans on the Ridge to honor 53 graduate student scholarship recipients.  In addition to the student scholarships, the Graduate School  also awarded the second Graduate School Mentor Academy Award for Excellence. Read More.

Association for Faculty Women honors four graduate students

By Cheryl Reed

The WSU Association for Faculty Women has awarded four graduate students for their ongoing leadership, research and exceptional academic performance.

During its annual ceremony on April 6,  the association presented its AFW Founders Award, Harriett B. Rigas Award and Karen P. DePauw Leadership Award. The recipients were nominated by WSU faculty, staff and peers.  Read More